So why would a chef/restaurateur who is a partner in a successful venture such as Sugarcane choose to open a 31-seat spot where he is only one of two cooks working in a tiny kitchen?
For Balloo, the answer is simple: He wants to share the kind of food he eats at home with the people of Miami. "Yesterday was Sunday and the restaurant was closed, but I found myself wanting to go to my own restaurant to eat my own food," he says.
The chef's eponymous restaurant, Balloo, opened Wednesday, November 20, inside the historic Ingraham Building in downtown Miami. The 800-square-foot space is located in the 13-story office building's first-floor lobby. A blue neon sign lights the way to an open kitchen. Next to it, diners eat in what could be someone's colorful, eclectic cottage in the Caribbean: Mismatched plates and air plants fill an orange hutch. Family photos cover the walls, and jars of pickled vegetables and fermented sauces line a shelf.
The menu, like the surroundings, is eclectic and colorful. At dinner last Wednesday, the menu listed a pickled vegetable of the day, straight from one of those jars, along with fried rice dotted with dried pineapple and homemade Spam, oxtail, goat, pigeon peas and rice, and chana aloo.
Balloo and chef Melissa Sosa plan the day's menu, which features core items such as oxtail and roti. "I always want to have a roti, some stewed beans, the oxtail, and goat," Balloo says.
Daily items change with both the weather and Balloo's whims. "Today the weather is cool, so we're going to make a congee [rice porridge]," he says. "Because it's fall, I want to make more pumpkin and gourds." He also introduced a fish this past weekend. "The menu is always based on mood. It's the food I want to eat that day." Dishes are priced between $7 and $27.
Balloo is also making several sauces, which he plans to sell under the name "Wing Wa." Asked what it means, the chef points to a photo of a smiling, chubby toddler on the wall. "That's me. That's my name in Chinese." The sauces come in three kinds: A Thai-inspired variety with pickled Thai chilies, vinegar, and sugar; a Trinidad-inspired style of Scotch bonnet peppers, culantro, onions, and garlic; and a chunky salsa-esque version made from roasted peppers and onions. All of the sauces are served at the table, along with a dish of crisp puffed tapioca starch called far far.
The restaurant also offers a small but well curated selection of beer and wine, as well as a refreshing shrub beverage.
Though tucked inside an office building, the restaurant holds a sort of magic that truly transports diners to a cozy, warm family affair. The hostess on any given day most likely will be Marissa Balloo, the chef's wife, who can be seen chatting him up over the counter of the open kitchen. If you feel you're being welcomed into the Balloos' home dining room, you're not wrong. Says Chef Balloo: "Miami represents me. I cut my culinary teeth in Miami, and all I wanted to do was come home with this restaurant."
Balloo. 19 SE Second Ave., Suite 4, Miami; 786-534-2768; balloorestaurant.com. Monday through Thursday 6 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 6 to 11 p.m. Closed Sunday.